Actually, maybe you should reconsider saying “Actually”

You may remember a few months ago when I wrote about removing “But” from your everyday discourse. Well, here is another word I want to encourage you to be very thoughtful of: Actually.

In some instances, “Actually” is very helpful. You can use it to name what is, in fact, true, to denote what specifically needs to be done, or what action needs to be taken. 

Following are two ways “Actually” confirms something is true or implies what needs to be done:

  • “The cookies were actually chocolate chips, not oatmeal raisin.”
  • “We will actually need to go into the crawlspace of the house to turn on the water.”

Just like, “But,” “Actually,” can also carry a silent inference with it wherever it goes. “Actually” carries an element of surprise. While that might sound enticing, it can easily offend. writes, “The other way to use the word actually is to imply that your expectations have been proven wrong, that the opposite of what you thought is true.”

Let’s look at some examples.

  • “I actually had a really fun time at the party last night.” 
  • “Actually, that dinner was really good!”
  • “It was actually a good class.” 

In all three of these, there is an implication that the speaker was expecting something else. If you are the host of the party from last night, you might think, Oh, you didn’t think you would have fun at my party? That hurts! Or if you were the one who just cooked the dinner, you might think, So you didn’t think I could cook something that tasted good? Or if you were the course instructor, you might think, They don’t think I’m not a good lecturer/instructor.

With these examples, people aren’t left feeling better. On the contrary. They are left feeling worse, having the silent inference land with disapproval. 

So, as we close 2021, it is a great time to consider our language and how it affects others. Looking both at how you use (or don’t use) “But” and “Actually” is a great place to start!

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver

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